SHORTY BELL'S SHORT RUN
Bill Paley’s postwar strategy was paying off in 1948. Six of his modestly budgeted network packaged shows were in the 1947-48 Top 50 (1). What’s more, three additional half-hours were on the horizon that showed promise.
The first was Meet Miss Brooks, a sitcom set in a Brooklyn high school starring Shirley Booth. Reset in a small mid-western town with Eve Arden in the title role and strong support by Gale Gordon, Jeff Chandler, Richard Crenna, Jane Morgan and other Hollywood talents, Our Miss Brooks became a radio and television favorite.
The second was another sitcom, The Little Immigrant, featuring veteran character actor J. Carroll Naish as an Italian newcomer in Chicago. Produced by My Friend Irma’s Cy Howard, given more Hollywood support by Alan Reed, Hans Conreid, Jody Gilbert, Gil Stratton and others, then retitled Life With Luigi, the show enjoyed two years in the Annual Top Ten.
The third show, considered a sure bet to make it a trifecta of hits for CBS, was Shorty Bell. As early as four months out in December, 1947, CBS was promoting its audition as “A fresh approach in radio dramatics,” but never actually defining what kind of show it was intended to be.
Shorty Bell's star, multi-talented Mickey Rooney, was to receive $3,000 a week, a record for CBS packaged shows. The 28 year old MGM wunderkind was no stranger to radio but this would be his series debut when he returned from a month’s engagement at London’s Palladium in February.
CBS Programming Vice President Hubbell Robinson and his West Coast assistant Ernie Martin supervised the audition of Shorty Bell, during the week of December 15th. It was initially reported to be a sitcom, then a newspaper melodrama - a confusion that would continue to haunt the program.
The first signs of trouble were reported on February 18, 1948, when Robinson flew back to the Coast to confer with the show’s writers, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Richard Carroll, after Shorty Bell’s audition record and its $10,000 week price to sponsor it received a poor reception in Madison Avenue‘s major agencies. Two weeks later, CBS President Frank Stanton was reported in Hollywood giving personal attention to a new Shorty Bell audition record, still described in the trade press alternately as a newspaper drama and a situation comedy. Sweating out the refinishing touches were its producer/director, William N. Robson, and his assistant, Norm Macdonnell, normally a first-line CBS director in his own right. (2)
A month late in arriving, Shorty Bell opened its run on CBS at 9:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 28, 1948 opposite NBC's American Album of Familiar Music and The Theater Guild On The Air on ABC. Because the show was sustaining no ratings for it were publishedl However, reviews the first show were reserved at best. Variety expressed its opinion three days later:
Shorty Bell is something that CBS describes as a “continuing novel.” The new half hour sustaining program on which the netwrk has reportedly affixed a $10,000 sponsorship price tag stars Mickey Rooney in his first air series. … But the program that preemed last Sunday in the cream 9:30 to 10 time segment isn’t calculated to excite that kind of commercial response. The sad truth is, even with Rooney as name bait, Shorty Bell … wasn’t far removed from the type of kid adventure stuff that fills the daytime airlanes. … Major interest, of course, is in Rooney as a radio personality and somewhere along the line somebody forgot that radio is strictly an audio medium. … Without those MGM cameras grinding out the distinctive visual characteristics that make up the Rooney personality, all that was left was an unsympathetic, one dimensional portrayal. Frequently, too, it was an attempt at “early Cagney.”
The review went on to criticize the work of producer/director Robson and supporting players John Hoyt, Gil Stratton, Lois Kern, Bert Holland and Joe Yule, Sr. - all handicapped by a script that forced them to race through the dialog to get all of the first episode’s introductory elements squeezed in. (3)
Not deterred in its efforts to sell Shorty Bell, CBS ran a full page ad in the following week’s Variety that read:
MICKEY ROONEY as Shorty Bell…a big star with a big new idea for dramatic radio. For the first time an authentic “Novel For Radio” … letting the listener in on the chapter-by-chapter development of a very real character as he progresses from a brassy, scrappy kid to a full fledged, fighting newspaperman.
CBS is mighty proud of its boy Shorty Bell - latest in a distinguished series of successes from the powerful, productive CBS Program Operation. Shows like this one explain why more and more advertisers who’ve been asking for better Radio programs are looking to CBS for the answers.
SHORTY BELL - A CBS PACKAGE PROGRAM
Two weeks later the following item appeared in the April 14th issue…
CBS apparently has some misgivings about its $10,000 sponsor price tag on the new Mickey Rooney Shorty Bell Sunday night stanza which preemed a couple weeks back as a sustainer. The network is now cutting around the expensive edges to get the price under five figures in hopes of landing a fast sale.
And in two more weeks on April 28th…
With the exit of Frederick Hazlitt Brennan as scripter of the Mickey Rooney program, it changes from a continuing story to separate episodes with only a loose connecting plot theme. Magazine and film writer Samuel Taylor is the new author.
CBS then did Rooney no favor when it moved Shorty Bell up 30 mintes on its Sunday night schedule to 10:00 p.m. ET against NBC’s popular comedy quiz Take It Or Leave It with Garry Moore and the second half of Theater Guild On The Air - both shows carrying double digit ratings from the 1947-48 season.
Studio audiences were also allowed to attend Shorty Bell broadcasts beginning in late April, presumably to react to laugh lines in the scripts. But classifying Shorty Bell as a sitcom or melodrama wasn’t helped by two of its later episodes. Prison Funeral from June 13, 1948, which gave Rooney the honest opportunity to display his true acting talent in a tear jerking script, while Poogy, from June 20th, was childish chaos, obviously appreciated by an audience full of kids judging from the sounds of their giggles.
A happy medium in the newspaper melodrama cum sitcom was somewhat struck in the episode of June 27th when Winnie Lane, a photographer from a rival newspaper played by Cara Williams, was introduced as a potential romantic interest for Shorty. Unfortunately for her and the rest of the cast, orders had been issued to cancel Shorty Bell.
But there was still the matter of Mickey Rooney’s $3,000 a week contract. Rooney appeared at the end the June 27th broadcast to say that although “Shorty Bell is going on vacation,“ he’d return in a week with a new show, “…Hollywood Showcase, to give young professional talent the break they deserve.“ CBS brass apparently thought they could tap the same talent competition format that produced Arthur Godfrey’s winning Talent Scouts for them, but they seemed to ignore Horace Heidt’s similar Youth Opportunity Program that already staked its Sunday night claim at 10:30 on NBC - immediately following Rooney’s new show.
No recordings of Hollywood Showcase exist, however its review in Variety of July 7th was promising:
CBS has finally found the formula for Mickey Rooney in radio. As the replacement for his ill-fated Shorty Bell I-want-to-be-a-newspaperman series the network has completely revamped its thinking about Rooney as a radio personality. It is now projecting him as sort of a Don Ameche (only doubly so) to emcee a talent-finding Hollywood Showcase Sunday night program with a three-man “board of producers” on hand to judge the potential of the aspirants. However, it’s all Rooney from the opening to the closing gong. He’s all over the place, dueting with pop singer Julie Wilson…beating out the drums as accompanist to Buddy Cole’s pianistics, thesping with dramatic aspirant Barbara Fuller…and otherwise spicing the event with characteristic Rooney bounce … One wonders how anyone else gets a crack at the mike - or for that matter why it’s necessary. This is strictly Rooney’s baby. … Rooney is Rooney and with his inexhaustible stamina, cockiness and verve he wraps up Hollywood Showcase in the palm of his hand.
The one man band played without a sponsor and Hollywood Showcase quietly left the air on September 12th. Shortly afterward Mickey Rooney was reported to be confined in his home with what was described as a severe throat infection with surgery possible. But he recovered sufficiently to embark on a successful vaudeville tour less than a month later. His last musical hurrah for MGM, Words & Music - in which he played lyricist Lorenz Hart in his typical exuberant fashion to solid reviews - was released in December, 1948. He popped up on radio again in 1949, leading the ensemble cast of MGM’s syndicated Hardy Family series of weekly half hours. The series didn’t sell and was shelved, only to be replayed on Mutual‘s.Thursday night schedule in 1952-53.
Mickey Rooney’s film career extended to roles in over 90 more feature films and dozens of television shows He made his Broadway debut in 1979, at the age of 59, in the hit musical Sugar Babies for which he and his co-star, Ann Miller, were both nominated for Tony Awards. He remained active until his death in 2014.
But he never again attempted a Network Radio series.
(1) Among the CBS created shows in the 1947-48 Top 50 were: My Friend Irma (8), Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (10), Big Town (17), Casey Crime Photographer (44t), Meet Corliss Archer (44t) and Suspense (50). (See The 1947-48 Season and CBS Packages Unwrapped on this site.)
(2) Both Robson and Macdonnell were respected veterans in Network Radio. Robson is best remembered for his work on the CBS mystery series Suspense, Escape, Pursuit and the prestigious Columbia Workshop. Macdonnell went on to become the only producer/director of the groundbreaking Western series, Gunsmoke.
(3) Joe Yule, Sr., after whom Mickey Rooney received his true name, was a longtime vaudeville and movie comedian best known as Jiggs in Monogram Studios’ five films based on the popular comic strip Bringing Up Father.
Copyright © 2017, Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org